At this point it is still only five starts, and there is a long way to go in the season with a lot of hockey to be played, but since returning from a lower-body injury earlier this month Matt Murray has made quite a statement that the starting goaltending job in Pittsburgh is not only his, but that he can still be a difference-maker for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Let’s start with the fact that after stopping 30 of 31 shots in the Penguins’ 6-1 rout of the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night Murray now has a .959 save percentage in his first five games since returning to the lineup. Those are outstanding numbers. So outstanding that it is the highest save percentage he has had over any five-game stretch at any point in his career. Only one other time (mid-December of 2016) did he have another five-game stretch where he was over .950.
That is obviously encouraging, even if the opposition hasn’t consistently been the greatest over those five games (though, he did go into Washington and play great there) because earlier this season when the Penguins were struggling they weren’t getting anything close to that level of goaltending, even against the NHL’s weaker teams, and it was crushing them. Among several other flaws.
Are the Penguins really playing all that different over the past few weeks during this mid-season resurgence? Or are they just getting better goaltending? It is honestly probably a combination of the two factors, but the goaltending is definitely the biggest one, and the goalie they need to be at the center of it has been.
For as accomplished as Murray’s resume already is he still came into this season as a long-term unknown for the Penguins.
He has won two Stanley Cups, but he also only had one full season where he was the unquestioned starter and for various reasons it did not go well. Then this season started off even worse. Is it possible the injury was a factor this year? Was last year just an outlier? We still have to find out the answers to those questions but this is at least an encouraging start toward getting there.
Entering play on Monday against the Minnesota Wild his save percentage on the season is up to .905, which is actually a tick above the league average at this point (.904) and he has been a rock in net for them.
My opinion on the goaltending situation has been the same all season — if the Penguins are going to be a Stanley Cup contending team again this season they are going to need Matt Murray to be the goalie and be a big factor in it.
After a really condensed schedule in the weeks leading up to the holiday break things lighten up a bit for the Penguins in the coming weeks and do not have another set of back-to-backs until the middle of January. It should be a great opportunity to give Murray some extended playing time to allow him to get himself back into a rhythm and build off of this momentum he has started for himself over his past few starts.
You shouldn’t expect him to maintain a .956 mark for an extended period of time, but if he can keep it above .910 or in that area it’s going to give the Penguins a chance every single night.